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CHINA: Burma’s Surprise Attack Against Ethnic Rebels Poses Dilemma

Analysis by Antoaneta Bezlova

Beijing, Sep 4 2009 (IPS) - Preoccupied with ethnic tensions in the vulnerable areas of Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing was caught off guard by Burmese military regime’s decision in late August to use force against armed rebel ethnic groups in the country’s north, which resulted into military strife that forced thousands of refugees to flee into China.

While the armed conflict has calmed down, Beijing now faces the possibility of having to cope with two intransigent neighbors on its doorsteps – North Korea in the north and Burma in the southwest.

For many years, Beijing has supplied Burma’s military junta with all means for political survival — security guarantees at the United Nations, arms, investment and trade links, as well as development assistance. In exchange, it has been given access to Burma’s considerable mineral wealth and allowed to become heavily involved in the country’s economic development. Chinese companies now operate across the board in industries from mining and timber to power generation.

So when Burmese generals decided to ignore China’s wishes and launch a surprise offensive to crush the Kokang ethnic rebel group in the border area, it was perceived here as a breach of trust. Chinese diplomats have been involved in quiet negotiations with Naypyidaw, Burma’s administrative capital, urging Burmese junta to resolve the ethnic issue in a peaceful way. The Kokang are ethnically Chinese and speak a Mandarin dialect but have lived for many decades inside Burma.

After the fighting broke, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a muted rebuke of the regime, saying that “both sides were responsible for maintaining stability along the border.” Beijing quickly imposed a blackout on news about the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the border, fearing it may be seen as having failed to help them. Along with Burmese-born Chinese refugees, there are hundreds of Chinese businessmen involved in gems, timber and other industries.

“It looks like the junta is becoming a bit uncomfortable at being in Beijing’s pocket, and is trying to rebalance its global ties,” says Ian Holliday, a Burma expert at the University of Hong Kong. “The generals are extremely nationalistic and would prefer to listen to no one. But they have no choice but to take some account of what China wants.”

The problem is that Beijing appears in a quandary as to how to handle the dilemma of choosing between defending the interests of ethnic Chinese inside Burma, and continuing its strategic alliance with the military junta.

Historically, Beijing has supported the armed ethnic rebels. Under Mao Zedong, China aspired to be the leader of the world’s communist revolution and financed and trained long-running insurgences over the whole of South-east Asia. In Burma, it supported the now defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which several times came close to winning power. The Wa and Chinese from the Kokang region were former members of the CPB.

While Beijing has emerged as the junta’s staunchest backer over the last 20 years, some Burmese military leaders remain distrustful of Beijing’s true intentions. The military, which seized power in 1962, has not forgotten the costly struggle it waged against the Chinese- backed Burmese communist party insurgency or the full-scale invasion mounted in 1968 by some 30,000 Chinese troops.

Beijing’s attempt to negotiate political solution to the ethnic issue at the border has been seen as half-tepid embrace of Burmese junta’s efforts to pressure the rebels to surrender their arms before key elections planned for next year. The junta wants to integrate the ethnic cease-fire rebel groups, particularly the Kachin, Kokang and Wa, into a border guard force.

But Chinese experts say Beijing has done enough in providing political cover for the Burmese generals and ensuring their success in the upcoming elections. A multi-ethnic state itself, China would be loathe to see a democratic change on its border that might ignite simmering tensions between the Burmans, Burma’s ethnic majority, and other ethnic groups, which have been clamouring for secession since the end of Burma’s British rule.

In early August, Chinese foreign ministry officials backed the regime’s decision to sentence detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi – the junta’s main challenge to power– to a further 18 months under house arrest, saying that the international community must respect Burma’s judicial sovereignty.

There are many other countries interested in exploiting Burma’s natural wealth but democratic countries like India did not dare stand behind the junta on that one, says Tan Leshui, an independent observer who had visited Burma many times. What is more, Beijing has done the generals a service by playing the go-between for a peaceful resolution of the ethnic strife along the border.

“Burmese military leaders themselves know that they can’t fight and win against the Wa – they are far too powerful and well armed,” says Tan. Beijing may not be in direct contacts with these rebel groups any more but local Chinese authorities along the border have been negotiating behind the scenes with their leaders to ensure a peaceful outcome, he says.

While embarrassed by the rift that the current conflict has exposed with its long-term protégé, Beijing has bigger concerns on its hands. As communist China prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary on October 1, Chinese leaders are facing fresh challenges to its monopoly of power from restive ethnic minorities in the far-flung regions of Xinjiang and Tibet.

“Beijing continues to be guided by the principle of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs,” says Lin Chaomin, an expert on South-east Asia at Yunnan University. “We have too many problems of our own to be able to afford looking after other nations’ problems.”

China’s investments in Burma differ from those of the West with its emphasis on human rights and democracy, argues University of Hong Kong’s Holliday. “Lack of political legitimacy, linked to limited economic development, and the resultant possibility of real instability are the core concerns for Beijing,” he told IPS in an e-mail.

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